Paul Felder's fear of brain damage won't stop him from making one last run at a title

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Paul Felder holds an open training session for fans and media at Yas Mall on Sept. 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Getty Images)
Paul Felder holds an open training session for fans and media at Yas Mall on Sept. 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Getty Images)

The top 15 or 20 lightweights in the UFC are a pack of trained killers, not the kind of men anyone with a good head on his shoulders, a young family and a bright future would want to mess with.

Paul Felder is one of the best young broadcasters in mixed martial arts, and has the ability to do cageside analysis for years to come. He’s thoughtful, knowledgeable, well spoken and quick on his feet, making him one of the best of a great collection of analysts the UFC has discovered.

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He’s got a degree in theater arts from the renowned University of the Arts in Philadelphia and has a passion for acting.

“I studied this s--- for four years and then I worked in the Philadelphia theater scene for years,” Felder said. “… I love this. It’s one of the great passions of my life. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for so long.”

But Felder is one of those 15 or 20 trained killers at lightweight who make the UFC’s 155-pound division the most compelling in the sport. With gloves on his hands, he’s the kind of guy most try to stay away from.

The duality of Paul Felder is this: He loves to fight, knows he’s one of the best in the world at it and doesn’t want to give up on it without making a serious run at the UFC lightweight title. But he’s also got a future on the stage, or on television or in the movies.

He loves both of his jobs, fighting and acting, but jokes about how one sort of gets in the way of the other.

He’ll fight Edson Barboza on Saturday in Abu Dhabi when they square off in the co-main event of UFC 242 in a hotly anticipated rematch of a 2015 bout that Barboza won via unanimous decision.

Their fight in Chicago in 2015 won Fight of the Night and was one of the most compelling of the year. Felder survived perhaps the worst low blow in UFC history when he was caught square in the groin by a spinning back kick from Barboza, a notoriously hard kicker.

Barboza, Felder admitted with a laugh, is precisely the kind of guy who will make developing a career as an actor difficult.

“I want to get back into [acting] and I want to get back into it while I can still memorize lines,” Felder said. “If Edson Barboza hits me upside the head too much, I’m not going to be memorizing s---.”

(L-R) Edson Barboza and Paul Felder face off during UFC 242 media day at the Yas Hotel on Sept. 5, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Getty Images)
(L-R) Edson Barboza and Paul Felder face off during UFC 242 media day at the Yas Hotel on Sept. 5, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Getty Images)

Felder is ranked No. 10 in the UFC’s lightweight rankings, but making a run at the championship before he retires will require a decided step up in competition.

He’s already spent a career fighting some of the toughest men in the world, guys like Barboza, Mike Perry, Charles Oliveira and James Vick.

But going after the belt means facing the likes of champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champion Dustin Poirier, who meet in Saturday’s main event; Tony Ferguson, Justin Gaethje and Conor McGregor, among others.

Felder sees the impact of fights close up in his role as a commentator. He isn’t immune to what is happening to the fighter on the ground.

“I see a lot of knockouts,” he said. “I see a lot of guys’ heads bounce off the canvas, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, man.’ When you see that from three feet, four feet, five feet away [in the broadcast position], depending upon where they land in that Octagon, you start to realize what we go through. It’s a young guy’s sport and you realize if you take too many of those, there’s no return. Seeing it over and over and over again makes me realize how brutal this sport is.

“Now, that being said, it’s one of the loves of my life. I love combat sports. I love martial arts. I just think guys need to be smart and get out at the right time.”

He’s cut way down on the amount he spars, thus reducing head trauma. He’s vowed only to take fights of significance that will advance him toward his goal of winning a title.

Because whenever he’s done with fighting, he has a lot of life ahead of him and a lot of things he wants to do. He said he’d love to act in a play and plans to audition for TV and movie roles.

He doesn’t want to play tough guys all the time and isn’t interested in the B-level martial arts films that so many fighters pop up in. He wants to take advantage of his training and act at a high level.

He also says he wants to be the best father he can to his daughter, and so he’s thought long and hard about the impact his love of fighting has on his life.

“I’m trying to [take steps to protect my brain health] because I have started to worry and think about that,” Felder said. “I have a 4-year-old now. I don’t want major brain issues when I’m older. I don’t want to not know who she is. I want to watch her grow and be a part of her life and enjoy seeing her develop into the woman she’s going to become.

“Obviously, I’m in a sport where we punch each other in the face. I’m well aware that I’ve done some damage and I’ll do some damage. But as long as I can get in and get out and not drag it past the point of no return, I want to make my run at the title, make a lot of money and try to cement my legacy before I sail off into the sunset. I have two years, max, left, I believe.”

The first step on the stretch run of Felder’s career is Saturday, and he knows what he’s in for against Barboza.

“We beat the crap out of each other for three rounds a couple of years ago, so yeah, I know what to expect,” he said, giggling as he spoke.

Expect violence, and a lot of it, then a hug and a lot of mutual admiration when it’s over.

The end of his career is finally coming into sight for Paul Felder, but as one door closes, another opens. And with his smarts and his background, he just may well keep popping up on your TV for years.

It just won’t be in the Octagon for all that much longer.

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